- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2015

Eight kids wait upstairs in Verizon Center. They are fidgeting around a meeting room table, waiting for the player who is supposed to take them on a holiday shopping spree. Word spreads through Wizards employees that John Wall is ready, and few minutes later he steps off the elevator in black Adidas sweats and bright green shoes. After walking past a Fathead of himself palming a basketball, Wall turns the corner and goes in. The kids — “underserved youth” as a Wizards press release called them — smile. The adults smile more. Wall calls out names and hands out the appropriate boxes filled with his signature shoe. Then, a modicum of trouble. The youngest of the group won’t put his socks on.

Security is introduced and the kids, ages 4 to 13, are assembled. Wall leads them out of Verizon Center and onto F Street, then 7th Street NW. Informed he’s tall, Wall explains he was 5-foot-6 for a long time, so, don’t worry, you’ll grow. The smallest, the boy from Sockgate, has instantly latched on to Wall as the group heads for cupcakes. People on the street and in restaurants gawk. Wall does not have the build that makes the public react as if Bigfoot has been sighted. But, the two security guards, swath of kids and Wizards employees, plus video cameras from Monumental Network and NBA Entertainment, announce the group’s presence with the subtly of a punch to the face.

On the way back to Verizon Center, people bustling along the sidewalk ask, “Who is that?” Once past a corner protest outside the Gallery Place Metro stop street entrance, the group piles into two black vans. They are about to head to Wal-Mart, then an Adidas store in one of the region’s shopping hubs the last Saturday before Christmas.

Outings like this are part brand expansion, part residual effort for a 24-year-old of extraordinary wealth who had little half a lifetime ago. Wall, the only Wizards player who will be part of the NBA’s all-star events this weekend when he starts Sunday’s All-Star Game for the Eastern Conference, is stepping forward. He’s done holiday outings prior, but they were with other groups, like the Washington Capitals or Washington Mystics. This is his thing. Wall is the team’s only all-star for the second consecutive season, someone whose know-how is catching up with his speed to push him into the next tier of NBA stars. Around the NBA, much like on the street, they are aware Wall is somebody, just not what level of somebody. Events like the coming all-star weekend are a step toward dismantling doubt about his stature in the game, something that remains in development and often discussed.

“All the tough times, kind of everything [is] paying off,” Wall said.

A long day ends with a spree

When walking into Wal-Mart to start the kids’ shopping, Wall notices one of the gift recipients is named Johnathan. “That’s my name, too. I just go by John,” Wall tells him. The youngest boy, socks on, is plopped into the cart. Wall pushes.

Wal-Mart is not closed to the public. Rapper Wale is also there, with his security, which expands the numbers in the group and the gawkers. Burned-out moms tug on their husbands who have lost shopping focus and are instead taking cell phone pictures of Wall. A woman and her daughter are afflicted with the same unanswerable curiosity that befell his viewers on F Street.

“Who is that?” she asks. “If I don’t find out, my husband will kill me.”

John Wall. He’s the point guard for the Washington Wizards.”

Her daughter is put in charge of remembering these facts.

The tiny, cute, bubbly boy in the cart is an untamed beast in the toy aisles. It fills behind him in a flash. Police car, Darth Vader doll, a basketball. At checkout, Wall and Wale joke. The boy finishes with two sacks of gifts. Wall is brought an apple juice.

At the Adidas store, the clear glass doors are locked after Wall and the group enters. This is enough to cause a stir. Wall walks in with the boy, who has a kung-fu grip around his index finger. They join Wale and most of their group in the back corner. The kids stock up on Wall jerseys. One treasonous youngster in the group checks out the official shoe of Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose. People pile up on the other side of the latched doors. Something is going on. They’re not sure what.

Pushed out of his head during this recorded and manicured event is the private one he attended earlier on this late December day. Wall made headlines when he broke down on camera after a Dec. 8 win against the Boston Celtics. Wall had found out that morning via text message that Miyah Telemaque-Nelson, a 6-year-old cancer patient he befriended that March, had died. He remained silent for most of the day. The on-camera emotion ambushed him. After he was done talking to reporters that night, he sat down with a Wizards staff member to talk about processing the emotions of death. Perhaps looming in the back of his mind were thoughts about his niece or nephew, who are near Miyah’s age.

Before the shopping spree, Wall went to Miyah’s funeral at The New Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast. After Miyah’s obituary was read, he spoke. Wall did not have a piece of paper. It was off the cuff. He felt relieved to speak publicly about his emotions, which is a large counter to how he acted when he entered the league as a 19-year-old.

Told it would be understood if he wanted to skip the Christmas event, Wall insisted he did not.

Back at the mall, the adidas store doors are unlocked. Wall’s group steps into the frenzy, where dozens of people have piled up to see who will be coming out. A large, stone-faced personal security guard named L.B. continues his daylong habit of walking next to Wall’s hip. Wizards security manager Jackie Miles is not far behind. Humor hits as one of the moms waves to the crowd and laughs, pretending it has assembled to see her. The Wall ensemble scoots out a side entrance and back into the vans for a return to the Verizon Center. Done trailing Wall and Wale, the crowd recedes back into the stores. He just completed an off day with a morning funeral, practice, shopping spree and commercial shoot. The Phoenix Suns and their three-point guard lineup are in town the next afternoon. The demands of the game, branding and unexpected connections have flooded his days as recognition grows.

Proving and improving

Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy remains opinionated and dowdy. He’s back in the league after being fired by the Orlando Magic in 2012. During his year between coaching jobs, Van Gundy worked on TV. When he made a local appearance on ESPN 980 in 2013, he said of the Wizards, “There is certainly nobody on that roster now that you can build around.”

It’s safe to presume Wall stored this in his notes under a category likely headlined “Haters, doubters, other.” Wall notices player rankings that do not have him where he feels he belongs. The outlet and author has little impact on his collection. They all count in his compilation of slights. This is also the inspirational process he has used since high school, when the recruiting rankings were slow to push him to the top. As recently as Tuesday, Wall mentioned not being atop the high school rankings until his junior year. That was seven years ago.

The productive part of holding onto these irritations comes in the expansion of his game. Earlier in the season, he worked on floaters and elbow jump shots with personal trainer Rob McClanaghan. Recently, he has joined centers Marcin Gortat and Kevin Seraphin in their post-up drills. This season, he has increased his post-ups, trying to use his length and force to bully smaller points guards.

“I’m just trying to trying to understand how to read the post,” Wall said. “When to take the shot and when teams are doubling.”

His mid-range jump shot has been the most distinct improvement this season. From 10 feet to 16 feet, Wall is shooting a career-high 45.1 percent. Last season, that number was just 34.8 percent. The percentage of his shot attempts from that range has almost doubled from last season. That shows his belief in his jumper — something that opposing coaches almost universally point out when asked about Wall — has risen with the results.

“It’s different than earlier in my career,” Wall said. “I probably would have been hesitant.”

The league rightly remains more afraid of Wall’s speed and league-leading assist totals. When the Minnesota Timberwolves visited Washington this year, defensive stalwart Corey Brewer switched onto Wall in one possession. He was at least five feet away from Wall. Wall dribbled, dribbled, seeming confused by Brewer’s purposeful distance, and finally shot and made a 3-pointer.

However, outside of the halfcourt, Wall continues to have defenses on full alert.

“He’s one of the few guards, he and Russell Westbrook, that use the whole court as an iso,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “If you don’t get back and get down in a stance, have bodies in position, it’s trouble.”

Though in his fifth season, Wall is only 24 years old. When he signed a maximum contract in the summer of 2013, the Wizards placed $84,789,500 of guaranteed faith into him. He leads the league in assists at the all-star break. His overall shooting percentage is up. The Wizards appear heading for their second consecutive playoff appearance. And, with the league’s salary cap expected to swiftly rise the next two seasons, Wall should become more and more of a value as his play improves and he remains locked into 2013 contract terms.

“He’s shown progress every single year,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said. “He’s matured. And, he continues to work hard. He continues to want to be the best point guard in the league, and he has that type of ability. He can achieve that.”

Even Van Gundy is changing his mind.

“I said that you know, I didn’t know if he could be a franchise guy,” Van Gundy said during Detroit’s November visit. “Probably 20 games into last year, I came out and said he’s a whole different guy and clearly capable of carrying a team. I think that’s what he’s proving to be.”

‘I knew things would come’

On Friday, Wall will sit in New York’s Times Square at the Sheraton Hotel. Around him will be the other all-stars: Unstoppable scorers, future Hall of Famers, the league’s elite. His name will be on a placard and he will be asked about his speed, improving jump shot, 360-degree layups and a cut dribble technique called the “Yo-Yo.”

Sunday will be Wall’s second all-star game and first as a starter. He expects the anxiety he felt last year, when he was advised by other all-stars to not take a jumper on his first shot in case nerves should turn it into an air ball, to return. He set a goal to be an all-star starter this season, which was an uptick over his initial ambitions when he entered the league.

“My vision was just trying to win over 20 games,” Wall said. “Early on, we weren’t winning. That was the most I lost in my career, so, it was tough. I knew things would come.”

When Wall returns to Washington, he’ll go back to his corner locker, where game shoes that have “R.I.P” and “Miyah” hand-written on top of the toe sit in front of a framed picture of the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Ample work remains. The Wizards went through a mine-filled January and have dipped to the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference. If the standings hold, that would put Washington up against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. The winner would face the conference’s top seed.

Triumphing there, especially for a facilitator like Wall, is the best way to squash doubt. Until then, there will be more notes, more outings and remaining questions for a player on the cusp of the upper tier.

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